The Night Before
After several stops my friend and I finally left Concord, NH at around 11 pm. Our plan was to drive up to the Highland Center in Crawford Notch, where presumably we could get a room for the evening and get an early start on our South to North Presidential Traverse.
The drive up was uneventful except for the deer which decided that the middle of the road was the best place to graze at 12 am. We successfully navigated the deer, which refused to be interrupted from its grazing. We arrived at the Highland Center, the AMC's base for the Crawford Notch area, at around 12:30.
We walked into the lobby at 12:30 and ask the guy at the desk if we can get a room for the night. It appeared that he had been asleep and that we had woken him up. Now don't get me wrong this guy was a great guy, and actually ended up being very helpful, but he didn't really speak English and having just woken up was not helping the situation. At first his response to our question was something I couldn't understand about not being able to stay here and suggesting we go to Vermont. Needless to say, we had no interest in going to Vermont when the trailhead was literally 50 feet away. After talking to him for a few minutes we came to the understanding that the computer system goes down at midnight every night to update and that we couldn't make a reservation until the morning so we couldn't stay there tonight.
We were not happy, but not discouraged, and worst come to worst we could have slept in my car. After all, at this point, we were getting up in four hours so it wouldn't make a huge difference. We actually contemplated just starting the hike, which would have meant we would have been done around noon, in time to nap before we drove home. We vetoed this idea because it wasn't great weather and we only had one headlamp between the two of us.
Finally, after deliberating for a little while about our options, I asked the guy at the desk if we could sleep in sleeping bags on the couches in the lobby, assuring him that we were getting up at 5 and were leaving before any other guests would be awake to notice us. At this point he offered for us to stay in a room without a reservation or computer entry, which was a huge break. We were in our room asleep by around 1. This was a huge favor, he definitely wasn't supposed to do this, but we did our best not to be noticed.
For whatever reason I didn't sleep very well and woke up at around 4 am to the sound of rain on the tin roof of the building. I laid in bed until around 5 and got up to start packing my stuff from the car. It was low overcast and drizzling but not very windy. We were both up, packed, and ready to hike by 6:15.
Our plan was to hike the traditional presidential traverse from South to North, summiting Pierce, Eisenhower, Monroe, Washington, and whatever else we would have time for, hopefully Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. We were prepared to skip any of the peaks after Washington and just descend to Appalachia if time did not permit. We needed to be at Appalachia by 4:20 pm to catch the last AMC hiker shuttle of the day back to Crawford Notch. I am still puzzled by the hiker shuttle's limited schedule, it seems like if you were going to do a hike of any length that required a shuttle you would have trouble making it down by 4 pm. This gave us 10 hours of hiking time. Our tentative plan was be on top of Washington by 5 hours into the hike (11:20 am) and play it by ear from there with the time, skipping as many of the last peaks as we would need to in order to make it down by 4:20.
To start out, the hike was pretty uneventful, hiking up the Crawford Path in increasingly heavy drizzle we made it to the top of Pierce in just over an hour. Pierce was one of the only mountains that afforded a view. We could see some of the higher peaks and had a fairly good view to the West. We snapped a couple pictures and moved on. Next up was Eisenhower, we made it from summit to summit in about 45 minutes. Up to this point averaging between 2.5 and 3 miles per hour. Eisenhower was equally uneventful but fairly windy, and with no real view because of the clouds.
Our next destination was Monroe. We never really made it out of the clouds between Eisenhower and Monroe, and at this point it was pretty windy and steadily drizzling. We spent a good portion of the leg between the two peaks having absolutely no idea how much farther it was or where we were in relation to anything else. After we summited Eisenhower we never really had more than 50 feet of visibility until we got most of the way to Jefferson. I kept thinking to myself that this is probably a beautiful hike, but you would never know it today. We were feeling pretty good and made it up to Monroe in a little under an hour.
Total we had summited the first 3 peaks in a little under 3 hours and hiked about 8.5 miles with about 2 miles to the summit of Washington, the crux of our trip. We had decided that if we couldn't make it to Washington by 5 hours into our trip we would abandon our plans and summit Washington and turn back and head to our car. Mileage wise Washington is right in the middle of the traverse. The key difference between the first half and the second half being the large amount of scree and generally less stable footing on Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe.
We made it down from Monroe and stopped briefly at lake of the clouds hut to throw on another layer as it was getting fairly chilly as we got higher. It was around 45 on top of Washington when we were up there. I had never been to or seen the Lake of the Clouds hut but from what I could tell it looked like a really nice place to stay. True to its name we saw both lakes and clouds in the immediate vicinity of the hut. More of the later than the former.
We made it up to Washington with time to spare. We were on the summit around 11 and spent 10 minutes utterly lost between the observatory and the tip top house. The visibility was so bad that we were literally surrounded by buildings and we were completely lost. We stopped inside the visitors center for about 20 minutes and ate our lunch and dried off. This was a welcome stop as we had gotten pretty wet over the last few hours.
At this point we thought we were tracking pretty well, we were averaging almost 3 miles per hour while we were hiking, not counting stops, and had climbed about 5000 vertical feet, half of the total vertical gain. Despite this we both felt very good and our only complaint was that we were carrying way to much water. We didn't realize we would be able to get water at the huts and at the summit of Washington and because of that we were carrying enough water for a 20 mile hike on a hot sunny day. I think we had about 20 pounds of water each, of which we probably drank less than half of.
We left the summit around 11:30. To recap: 4 summits, 5000 vertical feet, 10 miles, 5 hours, 3 miles per hour when we were actually hiking, 3000 vertical feet left to climb. At this point we thought we could make it all the way to Madison before having to head down to catch the shuttle.
It was a long slog down to Jefferson about 3.5 miles with around 1200 feet vertical gain. This is where we really started to fall behind. We were in the clouds all the way down and really didn't have any way to tell how far we had gone or how much farther we had to go. In addition the scree on the north side of Washington is a lot larger and therefore harder to maintain a fast pace on than the terrain on the south side. We finally got up Jefferson at around 1:00 pm. Not bad time, but closer to 2 miles per hour as opposed to the 3 we had been able to make earlier.
The summit of Jefferson was very very windy, windier than Washington was when we were up there. There were long periods of time when I would have to lean at about 15 to 20 degrees into the wind to stay balanced and not fall over. There were several occasions when a gust would come while I wasn't braced and literally blow me over to the point where I would have to catch myself as I hit the ground. The Mount Washington website said wind speed was in the mid 40's. I did not check what the gusts were but mid 40's seems very conservative. I would have guessed sustained wind in the 60's with gusts up to the 80's.
We got off the summit of Jefferson pretty quickly and headed over to Adams. Adams was a lot closer than the trek from Washington to Jefferson but still had around 1000 feet elevation gain. After Jefferson we finally got back out of the clouds and that was not necessarily a comforting thing. Hiking distances always look farther than they are and Jefferson to Adams did not look short or easy.
We made it up to Thunderstorm Junction, and to the summit of Adams, which, in hindsight was a poor choice. We should have just gone down from Thunderstorm Junction. We were on the summit just after 2:00 pm. We started heading down Airline directly from the summit around 2:20. The sign from the summit said 4.2 miles to Appalachia and we figured we were more than capable of averaging 2 miles per hour for 2 more hours which would put us down just in time to catch the shuttle.
Thirty minutes later after climbing down the scree we crossed the AT and saw another sign for Appalachia at 4.0 miles. We had been going less than a half a mile an hour according to those two signs and were down to an hour and a half to make it down 4 miles. We still figured if we hustled we would be alright because that was less than 3 miles per hour, which is what we had been able to make for the first 10 miles. We were wrong.
I have never liked hiking down. I have no problem climbing up and actually I think am typically faster going up than coming down. I think it is because I am relatively fit so I don't have much problem with the aerobic work of climbing up. Climbing down airline, over wet rocks and mud, at the end of a long hike was a different story. We made it to the next mileage marker (2.2 miles) with about 40 minutes to go. We hiked a while longer as quickly as we could but with 20 minutes left until the shuttle and about a mile and a half remaining I took both the packs and my partner ran down to try and catch it. Unfortunately, I didn't think to give him the keys to my car. He made it just in time for the shuttle. However, I was making much slower progress trying to carry two packs. He didn't have the key to my car or any cash so he couldn't leave with the shuttle. The shuttle waited around for a few minutes and the driver decided he had to go.
At this point I was struggling, I tried every possible strategy for carrying two packs but nothing was really working. So I kept cruising down going as fast as I could, which admittedly was not very fast. I made it down around 4:45. 10 hours 25 minutes, 6 peaks, 19 miles, 1 missed shuttle.
Luckily we met a couple in the parking lot of Appalachia who was kind enough to give us a ride back to the Highland Center, saving us 25 miles of walking, or an undetermined amount of hitchhiking. It was very nice of them, and we were very grateful, because it was not necessarily on their way anywhere.
We got back to the Highland Center around 5:30 only to discover the trunk of my car had not been closed all the way, and as a result, the lights stayed on while we were hiking and the battery had died. Unfortunately, no one had jumper cables, which afforded us the opportunity to test out the response time of AAA in northern New Hampshire. We finally got the car started around 7:00 and were on our way. Only two hours later than planned.
More details, pictures, and editing to follow, thats all the time I have right now.